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The Gates of Fire
Please welcome the newest addition to FTTW, Kristine. Kristine will be the official book reviewer of FTTW. Her column will appear every Monday.
"Of all the Spartans and Thespians who fought so valiantly the most signal proof of courage was given by the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that before the battle he was told by a native of Trachis [a nearby town] that, when the Persians shot their arrows, there were so many of them that they hid the sun. Dienekes, however, quite unmoved by the thought of the strength of the Persian army, merely remarked: 'This is pleasant news that the stranger from Trachis brings us: if the Persians hide the sun, we shall have our battle in the shade.' He is said to have left on record other sayings, too, of a similar kind, by which he will be remembered." – The Histories by Herodotus
On March 9th the movie 300 is being released in theaters. The flick is based on a graphic novel (comic book) of the same name and I am looking forward to it seeing it. It's that release that brings me to the book review for this week.
Many years ago I read the book Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and his latest novel, The Afghan Campaign which recreates Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Afghan kingdoms in 330 B.C. (In The Virtues of War Pressfield also tackles Alexander the Great’s battles in Iraq in 331 B.C. And yes, the past touches on contemporary warfare making for a very enlightening read, but I digress.)
This novel was first published in 1999 and tops out at 400+ pages. It is the story of the battle at Thermopylae, where Leonidas and his 300 Spartans held the mountain pass for days against thousands of Xerxes' Persians.
This narrative is told in flashback by a slave, Xeo, who is captured by Xerxes' men and is the sole survivor from the Spartans' camp. Xerxes asks that Xeo relate the tale of what makes a Spartan the sort of man who would fight knowing he will only find death—what makes Leonidas the sort of king that would answer, “come get them” when Xerxes demanded he surrender their arms.
Xeo then relates his history of being trained alongside his master, Alexandros, and goes into much detail about life in Greece & Sparta, military training, traditions, and relationships with friends, parents, lovers.
There are parts of this book that become very slow. But pushing on is worth it. Especially if you love world history and/or history of wars.
I recall Xerxes being portrayed as a sympathetic and curious character. In life however, he was so angry at Leonidas and the Spartans for the death of so many of his men that he had Leonidas decapitated and crucified. This was not a common practice in Persia, and in fact Xerxes had been known for treating fallen enemies with respect.
The author of this book does a great job with descriptions and details, from the sound of creaking wheels and the baying of animals, to the fear, blood, and dirt. You can see this war in your mind as Pressfield paints the scene. Everything is crisp and vivid and you will lose yourself in the battle even though you know the outcome.
There were things I didn't know and was fascinated by. The traveling troupe that follows the Spartans, the attitudes of the women left behind to wait, the intense training and loyalty.
This book is powerful and shocking while still retaining moments of tenderness and love. I can only hope that the picture painted within this novel is at least 1/10th represented in the movie 300. Gates of Fire has been optioned by Universal since its release but has been sitting on a shelf. Perhaps if 300 is successful, they might dust it off and bring it out for another try.
This book serves as a brilliant memorial to the men who fought bravely that day in 480 BC. Even now there is a monument at the pass where the battle took place, with a plaque that reads: Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie and that is how this novel begins.